Contra – New York, NY
Instagram has figured out that most of my life is food/wine, airplanes, music, and cute guys. The algorithms are precise, y'all!
Though, I suppose such things are not secrets. And now that I have started to "break in" a bit to the NYC food world, and followed many of those people in Instagram, I have become increasingly aware of Contra, from the same restaurant family as the legendary Wildair, which right now is is just making donuts and sandwiches to go.
Either Contra is doing a killer job advertising to me on Instagram through algorithms, or Contra is one of the most exciting places to eat in New York City. Either way, I have been trying to land a reservation here for a long, long time. Since I was going to Jonathan Tam's residency at Stone Barns, when I saw him post about his meal at Contra, I knew I had to try again to get in during this weekend trip, and somehow miraculously found a last minute spot for one on Saturday night.
Young duo Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske brought their Cosmopolitan culinary expertise to the Lower East Side in 2013 when they opened Contra, originally as a tasting menu spot in a distinctly non-fine-dining neighborhood. For that reason, they were serving fine dining fare that would be at home at places like Bernardin in a stripped down, narrow, utilitarian space that could be a cookie-cutter modern NYC restaurant for unbelievably reasonable prices. When they reopened this year, they adopted a hybrid concept, with shared small plates a la carte as one option and a six-course "Carte Blanche" menu as another. Guess what I went with?
The Carte Blanche is the chefs' selection of plates from the a la carte menu that the chefs think best represents what they are doing right then. The dishes are simple and clean, with a serious focus and minimalism, but with things that are incredibly inventive as well. I definitely saw some dishes that interested me in particular, so I was interested to see what they would select!
Of course, I went with the wine pairing as well, and the wine program is really fun here––one critic said "the wines are cooler than you are." The girl who served me the wine was so much fun too, and I loved nerding out with her about food and wine. The first selection was an atypical, fuller bodied rosé from Provence made by a strange dude with an affinity for Japanese culture, as you can see on the label! The rosé was made from some less typical grapes, and had a depth I don't tend to expect from many Provençal rosés. Kanpai!
Bread is a staple at Contra––they get their sourdough from a tiny bakery in Brooklyn and serve it with house-cured butter. As both regular readers of my blog know, I give tremendous credit to restaurants that offer a bread service, and this bread, while not made in house, was one of the best loaves I've been able to enjoy of late.
Beautiful summer cherry tomatoes were the protagonists of the first course, served playfully alongside sliced cherries, olives, and a delightfully salty ricotta salata. It felt like a play on a caprese salad with three visually similar ingredients, and the tomatoes were so wonderfully sweet that they were almost indistinguishable from the cherries. The ricotta, meanwhile, provided a much needed savory component. Wonderful!
The next wine is one of my favorites I've had in a long time. From Santa Barbara, made with San Luis Obispo pinot fruit, this slightly effervescent rosé was too easy to drink. Incredibly refreshing, delicious, and bursting with red fruit, it was a perfect little tipple, especially after a very humid walk to the restaurant. I was loving it so much that there was little left for the course!
Wagyu beef "crudo" was next, thinly sliced similarly to a carpaccio, with a rhubarb and guajillo chili mole smeared underneath. Y'all. This was so good. A low, smoky spice from the guajillo, with the tang of rhubarb and the complexity of the mole, it was a perfect complement to the fatty wagyu. I just wish I heard the server tell me what the leaves were on top!
Nathalie Gaubicher used to be a Swiss actress and then found herself becoming a superstar of natural wine production. She makes this wine, "So Nath!", fashioned after her nickname, from an obscure grape called terret gris, made in a natural wine style with native yeast to produce a foggy wine with apples, stone fruit, and delightful summertime acidity that makes it approachable with many different dishes.
The dish paired with Nathalie's namesake wine focused on grilled spring onions and fava beans, served with a dressing of preserved lemon and walnuts, and topped with microplaned aged gouda from Holland. A tasty dish and rather summery, but probably the least memorable of the night.
I asked if the Carte Blanche menu advanced from top to bottom, because the hiramasa dish I saw on the menu was the most appealing to me of all the dishes, and it had been skipped over after the first course. This course not only contained raw fish, one of my favorite things, but also was the dish that Chef Jonathan Tam, in residence at Stone Barns, had isolated as his favorite on his Instagram story when he ate here the week before. Without wanting to make waves, I timidly requested that they added the hiramasa course, and they happily obliged.
But of course, wine must accompany! Petillant, or "pet nat," a pre-Champenoise method of producing sparkling wine, had a moment a few years ago along with the rise of natural wine practices, and I still love it despite being a little late to the trend. This one, from the Loire Valley, is made from chenin blanc, a classic, versatile summer grape, and had some lovely salinity that would prove to be perfect with the raw fish course.
And what a course it was. And, it played on alliteration! Raw hiramasa, a type of yellowtail, was served with ramp/radish/rhubarb kimchi (fun!), mustard greens, and raspberry, with the savory tang of the kimchi, the delightful summery raspberry, and, the cornerstone, garnished with a powder of dehydrated scallions (!). Absolutely incredible, and probably my favorite course of the night. So glad I requested that it be added!
Okay, back on track... the next wine pairing! Back to chenin blanc, this wine, from the Loire Valley, is from a subregion that almost exclusively produces red wine, so the winemaker named this "Existe en Blanc," emphasizing living in white in a red grape world. More acidic chenin, but obviously with more body than the ebullient pet nat, it was a killer pairing with the heavier elements of the next course.
The next course was called "ecrase," which means "crushed," and it was a sort of loosely assembled "cake" of peekytoe crab and potatoes cooked in seaweed butter (!) topped with thinly-sliced radish, yuzu, chives, and sea beans. Man, this course was just oozing with richness and umami, and was a close competitor for the best course of the night. I am loving seaweed in dishes these days, and sea beans, land-based succulents that grow by the ocean, have a similar type of salinity without the oceanic funk. What a course! Goddamn.
Sylvaner is a common varietal in Austria and Alsace that features, like many Austrian whites, a lot of green apple, brightness, and acidity. I don't see nearly as much Sylvaner as I do grüner Veltliner in the US, but I really enjoyed this wine, and was happy to get another taste of a varietal I rarely get to try! Alsace is high on my list of wine regions to visit.
The last savory course consisted of several thin slices of grilled cuttlefish, beneath which was a caramelized sorrel and laurel sauce (see what they did there?), woodear mushrooms, and cuttlefish ink. Earlier in the spring they were featuring this dish with sorrel, laurel, and morels! Not quite a rhyme, but a lot of fun! It seems the chefs here like to play with things like rhyme and alliteration when selecting ingredients. Cuttlefish is something I don't get to eat very often and I very much enjoyed this version, which was flavorful and tender.
Cerdon du Bugey is one of the most interesting sparkling wines out there. From the Bugey region approaching the Alps in France, this dark pink bubbly is made mostly with gamay, and is intensely floral, slightly sweet, and brimming with ripe red fruit. It is also an ingredient in my favorite cocktail of all time, a variation on a French 75 made with Calvados instead of gin, lime instead of lemon, and Bugey Cerdon instead of Champagne. A lovely Cerdon du Bugey was the pairing with the dessert course, and it was scrumptious!
Apricot and burnt vanilla bean ice cream was the dessert, served with apricot jam and tea. Really delicious, even though I am not usually a huge apricot fan, and one of the last days they served this dish!
I really enjoyed Contra, and it definitely lived up to my expectations. Most fun was their fantastic wine program, and the dishes were minimalist but full of whimsy. Fantastic! Can't wait to try their sister restaurant, Wildair, now that they have re-opened for dinner.
New York, New York, the greatest food city in North America. Absolutely loved this most recent trip, and it was capped off with one of my favorite Chef Residency meals at Stone Barns. Keep an eye out for the review!